Good morning ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for the invitation to speak today on my role and the engagement of young people and the PSNI.
Many of you will already be familiar with statements I have made about policing and justice in relation to young people as well as with advice I have given to government.
Today I hope to share with you examples of good practice I have come upon, what my role is and to explore a little about what ‘engaging youth’ actually means.
As research carried out with PSNI officers in North Belfast in June of last year revealed they felt :
“They were left to resolve issues that were social rather than policing matters and that agencies and organisations that should [be involved] did not want to be involved.”
Seen in that context it is easy to see that when you do not know the circumstances in which some of our young people have to live their lives, you can make assumptions.
From my work and from what young people have told me, they are very concerned about negative stereotyping. This impacts on how they are portrayed in media reports and political commentators who young people feel are painting a picture of rampant anti-social behaviour’.
For every report you may hear – or experience – of anti-social behaviour we must acknowledge these points.
Despite the negative stereotyping, we must always remember there are thousands of young people who are studying for exams, volunteering in their community, playing sports, members of youth clubs and organisations like the Guides, Scouts and BB and other voluntary groups. Some may also be acting as Carers, and are almost all contributors to society.
In 2010 Members of my youth panel carried out research on how the media reports children and young people. They found that up until the age of 11 most reports on children were positive. From the age of 11 media reporting generally painted a picture of anti-social behaviour and criminal activity.
At the age of 11 young people don’t suddenly become problem children.
We must all resist this temptation to label all young people as bad.
Echoing through that report on PSNI officers’ perceptions of young people there is also a sense of compassion from many officers when dealing with alleged criminality by young people.
The conclusion stated that young people’s so-called lack of respect towards police was as a result of an environment where:
“…unemployment, truancy and a lack of aspirations were accepted as the normal way of life”.
Unfortunately that is the reality for too many young people living in Northern Ireland today.
In looking at the issues connected with policing and justice I was pleased to note the references in the Youth Justice Review to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is sometimes called the UNCRC.
And, I was delighted to note that arising from that review the recommendation that the Justice Act (2002) should be amended to reflect Article Three of the Convention, which says that young people’s best interests should be the primary consideration. I understand that the Faster, Fairer Justice Bill will provide the vehicle for this amendment.
When the office of then Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People the legislation clearly stated that I must have due regard to the UNCRC in all my work.
That work is:
“To safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people.”
What that means largely is advising and holding government to account on its policies, its legislation and the services it provides for children and young people.
Therefore, I have a significant interest in policing and justice as part of my duty to advise government on law, policies and services.
As mentioned earlier my work is guided by the UNCRC.
Those obligations to children and young people were designed to improve children’s lives. I’d like briefly to highlight two of the promises – known as articles – that are relevant to today’s discussions.
Firstly Article 12. This article says that children and young people should have a say in decisions that affect their lives. When any agency – including Policing and Youth Justice agencies – are designing services or policies they should take account of, and actively encourage the participation of young people.
I have seen two examples where this has worked tremendously. The PSNI in Strandtown engaged with young people to address issues where there was a perceived ‘conflict’ between those young people and the community.
So successful was this project in removing barriers between police and young people that this was acknowledged in my 2013 Participation Awards to it. And it was young people from my youth panel who chose the winners.
Another example where developing participation with young people showed positive outcomes was my pilot research on Youth Independent Advisory Groups .
Again this showed that when you involve young people, hear what they say and act upon they say everyone can see the positive results. Indeed, following this pilot project and my subsequent report, the Policing Board’s Thematic Report on Children and Young People contained a specific recommendation to roll-out Youth Independent Advisory Groups into each Policing District. I understand that this is still work in progress.
Through listening to what young people have said to me there is clearly a lot of good practice between the PSNI and young people. Equally there are encounters that fail. Whether that be through a lack of mutual respect, or simply a lack of understanding is something that officers can reflect on, and I’m sure that they do.
Other feedback I received related to how young people said that they had a relatively good relationship with neighbourhood officers, whom they knew.
However, at weekends or when Tactical Support Group teams were in the area the relationship was not evident. This is a major piece of learning that could be addressed further order that children and young people can experience consistent policing.
That consistency is vital if we are to develop and maintain respect for policing.
Secondly Article 40 of the UN Convention states generally:
If you are accused of breaking the law, you should be treated fairly and with respect.
To be treated fairly and with respect.
That’s what we all would expect or hope for.
We must ask therefore why so many young people feel that they are not treated ‘fairly’?
In my response to the 2011 Long Term Policing Objectives consultation I noted that many children and young people will not necessarily be aware of their individual rights.
Therefore PSNI officers must be aware of those rights, for two reasons. Firstly, that they do not breach those rights; and secondly “to ensure that the young person is not only aware of but further, understands their rights from the outset”.
Previously my office has commented on several policing and justice issues which impact young people’s lives.
As you consider today’s reports and presentations I’d like you to keep in mind the following Articles of the Convention: [Pause]
Before continuing, it is essential to consider that according to the PSNI’s own statistics it is often the child or young person who is the victim of the crime.
By the same token it is important to note that progress has been made in taking on board the Convention and children and young people’s human rights; and, I urge the PSNI to consider further training in order that the appropriate policing of young people continues to grow.
And, I think it also important to note that PSNI officers themselves feel that their time is being taken up by situations that could be avoided. Include Youth, in its response to the consultation on Long Term Policing Objectives said:
“PSNI officers reported spending a disproportionate amount of time responding to call-outs to deal with incidents, often of a low level nature, involving young people.”
Part of this, I believe, is due to the negative stereotyping of young people, as I mentioned earlier is why people seem to fear young people who are simply behaving as young people.
Jacqui Cheer, Chief Constable of Cleveland and the Association of Chief Police Officers spokesperson on children and young people said in an article in The Guardian in November that society was becoming “quite intolerant” of young people.
Her comments were also made during a Westminster All-Party Group on Children when she said:
“What’s antisocial to one person is just what I did and what many young people do.”
Having placed the issue of policing children and young people in the context of society’s attitudes and the UNCRC, and having noted good practice by the PSNI Officers it is now time to issue you all a challenge.
The challenge is to build upon today’s conference, and to learn from the examples of best practice and with creative approaches to policing in relation to our children and young people.
That creativity is already there.
It can be seen, for example, in the developing of ‘apps’ to improve communications.
It can be seen in initiatives such as that in North Down in which young people drinking in public were referred to an alcohol advisory service.
It can be seen in the individual officer who develops good relationships with young people and can therefore diffuse difficult situations.
Now, the challenge is to take these examples and develop new creative approaches. Now, is the time for us all to consider what exactly does ‘Engaging Youth’ mean? And, how we can do it better each day…
Thank you for your time and I wish you well for the rest of the day.